3 Simple Reasons Your Photos Are Blurry

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I recently saw a question in a Facebook group that caters to new photographers who are learning the craft.  The problem was a common one.  It went something like this, “I have a nice new camera, but my pictures are still really blurry.  How can I fix it?”  This is a great question.  Let’s dig in!

There are 3 reasons that your photos may be blurry.  But first, if you’re not shooting in manual setting, then these solutions may be hard to understand, so start by reading Your Ultimate Guide to Shooting in Manual Mode.  I’ll be here when you get back!

Now let’s talk about what’s happening and some solutions for blurry photos!

Motion Blur Due to Shutter Speed

Shooting in manual mode allows you to have ultimate control over your shutter speed.  So here is the basic rule you need to remember to keep your subject from appearing blurry.  I have heard it called the 1/focal length rule.

Your shutter speed should always be set at a minimum number equal to the focal length you are using.  For example, if you are using a 50mm prime lens, then your focal length is 50mm.  This means your shutter speed should not be set any slower than 1/50th of a second.  Using a 70-200 zoomed all the way to 200mm?  You guessed it – your shutter speed should be set no slower than 1/200th of a second.

What does this have to do with my blurry photo, you ask? Well, when your subject is moving, your shutter speed needs to be fast enough to freeze the movement.  I go into much greater detail about shutter speed, freezing action, and motion blur in Capturing the Pour – Using Shutter Speed to Freeze Action.

If your settings are not correct, the slightest movement of your subject will show and your image may look blurry.  Once you test this theory out, you will see that this shutter speed rule will definitely make a difference in a slightly blurry photo.  Here’s a great example.

Baby with a birthday cake - good focus
Awe - my cute little grandson celebrating his first birthday. Here the shutter speed was fast enough to freeze his motion. Soon he began flinging cake and, well... Look what happened next.
Baby with blurry hands making a mess with a birthday cake
See how his hands are suddenly blurry? When he began quickly moving them, the shutter speed was no longer fast enough to freeze his action. Remember that you can choose to blur motion for artistic choice, but generally speaking, you want your shutter speed fast enough to freeze action completely.

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It's Not Just the Subject - You're Moving, too!

The second reason that you may see some blur is due to camera shake.  This is also a side effect of slow shutter speed, so even if you’re following the 1/focal length rule, then you may still get a little blur in your photo if you’re not holding your camera steady.

Meet Diane, my special helper for this project.  She has a wonky eye, but she holds really still for me.  Here is an example of what an image will look like with a bit of camera shake.

fake head showing blurry photo due to camera shake
The perfect example of a blurry photo due to camera shake
No camera shake equals a much clearer image.

Now a quick note on how to hold your camera correctly.  The basic correct stance includes bracing your feet and holding your arms close to your body.  In addition, be sure and hold your breath when you’re braced to capture your image.  It is amazing what a difference this small adjustment can make.

Woman holding camera incorrectly which causes motion blur
This is not the stable way to hold your camera. Arms out and unbraced legs can cause camera shake resulting in motion blur.
Woman holding camera in a correct stance to prevent motion blur
This is the correct way to hold your camera. Legs are stable and arms held tight to the body prevent camera shake and a blurry photo.

This is every bit as important when holding your camera for a vertical shot.  A lesson I learned early on was from a pretty animated photographer who was teaching a class at my local camera club.  He had us all stand with our cameras in hand and then tip our cameras up as if we were taking a vertical shot.

We all lined up and then waited while he went around the circle, flapping his arms and clucking like a chicken at various students.  It was slightly humiliating but effective.  It turns out the natural inclination is often to hold your camera with arm twisted up in a chicken-wing style pose.  The instructor quickly went on to say that whenever he sees a photographer holding his/her camera that way, he knows he has encountered a beginner.  I definitely needed correcting, and once he showed us the proper way to hold the camera, it made perfect sense.

Woman holding camera in an awkward stance
Woman holding camera correct in the vertical position

Camera shake can also be a by-product of shooting in unstable conditions, such as on a tripod in the wind or on a bridge that is vibrating with traffic.  This is one reason to upgrade to a lens with Vibration Control (VC) or Image Stabilization (IS).  Those lenses tend to have a higher price tag, though, and if you’re just beginning, perhaps you haven’t yet invested in one.  No worries – you will soon get the hang of holding your camera for stability, and it will become second nature to increase your shutter speed.

Missed Focus

A missed focus is another reason you may have a slightly blurry photo.  Don’t worry!  A missed focus happens to all of us.  There are a couple of reasons it can happen, and both are easy fixes with some awareness and practice.

First, you may just have your focal points set up incorrectly.  Simply Snapping has a great post all about understanding your camera’s focal settings.  Check it out HERE.

Second, your Depth of Field may be set too shallow to get your entire image in focus.  Just like we talked about above with shutter speed, when you’re shooting in manual mode, you can control your depth of field by adjusting your aperture.  You want to be sure your aperture is stopped down enough (bigger #) to allow your image to be in focus from front to back. You can read about how aperture affects depth of field in Take Your Photos to the Next Level by Understanding Depth of Field.  

When you have one or both of these settings set incorrectly for the image you’re trying to capture, you have double the likelihood of a blurry shot.  For example, if your depth of field is very shallow (small #) and your focal point is off, you may end up with an image focused on your subject’s nose instead of the eyes.

Diane happily posed again to show you what it looks like when you have your aperture set too narrow and you don’t get a whole face in focus.

fake head with focus on back eye
See how the back eye is in focus but the front isn't? That's because the aperture is set too shallow. The eyes are on two different focal planes.
fake head with full face in focus
When you stop down the aperture, (bigger #) you can get the whole face in focus.

The more you practice honing these two settings to your liking, the sooner you’ll be nailing every shot, or at least knowing why you missed it!

One Final Tip

Now that we’ve covered all of the technical possibilities for a blurry image, let’s just talk about one simple adjustment that makes a huge difference when you’re out shooting.  Although unlikely, it could make catching focus a bit of a challenge.  Introducing the Diopter Adjustment Dial.  It is located at the top of your camera near the viewfinder.

This little adjustment works kind of like reading glasses.  If you’re looking through the viewfinder and the view is blurry, give that dial a little spin and watch everything come into clear focus.  I am embarrassed to say it took me several years of shooting on my DSLR to realize that I could make that adjustment.  But once I did – WOW!  What a difference this little dial can make!

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